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A Reflection on Christmas: Blast from the Past

Four years ago I made a very personal post about my feelings about Christmas, the day after.  It was one of my personal favorite posts of all time.  I repeat it again here, this time the day before.

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In the opening chapter of my book God’s Problem, I talked about going to church on Christmas Eve in 2006 with my wife Sarah and brother-in-law Simon, in Saffron-Walden, a market town in England where Simon lives, not far from Cambridge.  It was a somber but moving Christmas Eve service, and yet one that had the opposite of the intended effect on me.  It made me realize just how estranged I was from the Christian faith, from the notion that with Christ God entered into the world and took its sufferings upon himself.   I just didn’t see it, and it made me terrifically sad, resentful, and even angry.  There is so much pain and misery all around us, and yet the heavens – in my judgment – seem to be silent.

This is not what led me to write God’s Problem.  I had been planning to write it already for some time.  But the service encapsulated my feelings that eventually came to expression in that book.  I realized the other night that I have not stepped into a church since then, that Christmas Eve midnight service, six years ago.

But I went again this year – same market town, same company, same church, same service.  It had a very different effect on me this time.   I think I’m less angry now.  Less mystified by the lack of a divine response to the horrible pain and suffering going on in the world – crazy gunman in Newtown MA; hurricane Sandy; wars in the Middle East; horrible tragedy of Syria; disaster in Congo; not to mention the daily ravages of starvation, epidemics, droughts, floods, and on and on and on, world without end.   But why *should* there be a divine response?  There appears to be no divine responder.   Not much to get angry about any more.

At the same time, I seem to be less antagonistic to the faith that I once held and cherished so dearly.   I realized three nights ago at the service that even though I still don’t believe it, simply DO NOT believe it, there are things about the Christian faith that I value very highly.  And I wish very much that I could still be a Christian, even if that means simply holding on to the Christian myth (I would never think that it’s some kind of historical, empirical, or even metaphysical reality) as the myth that I want to embrace.  And the reason is this.

On the way to the church, walking through the dark streets of Saffron Walden, we passed a pub open late.  The young people were lined up en mass to get in.  Christmas Eve is a night to get completely blitzed, loaded, drunk out of your gourd for many people (not just 19-year-olds) in England.   By comparison, the church in town, for this major service, had a good size crowd, but it was nowhere near full.   And I started thinking about the values represented by these two groups of people, and about which set of values I personally feel aligned with.

Let me be clear: I am not against a good bit of drinking and lots of good cheer.  Just the contrary.   But what if my life consisted in doing that all the time?   And what are the values and the guiding life-principles of people who do so?  Or of those who do not do so, but live completely secular lives?  What exactly do people value outside communities of faith?  Some of us outside these communities, of course, value fairly traditional social values.  At least I do.  Good family relations; good friends; little pleasures in life; doing good for others.

But that’s not what society as a whole values and I might as well face it.  Most people in our society principally value themselves.   Egotism and self-centeredness rule the day.   Most people (frankly) don’t give a damn about the pressing problems of our world.   Most are far more interested in how much money they can make, and spend, and how many great things they can buy.  They might give a buck to a panhandler on the street corner and feel good about themselves, or twenty bucks at Christmas to a charity; but basically they, most of us, want to earn all they can to use it for themselves.  (I’m *not* complaining about people who give 20 dollars and that’s all they can afford to give; I sit in wonder and admiration at *them*).   When I look at my own community of Durham NC, I see a fairly typical community where a very few people give a LOT for the sake of others (probably the majority, of these, however, are people of faith), but where there is an ungodly amount of money that is hoarded or spent on personal pleasure without a care in the world that less than a mile away people are sleeping on the streets in the cold without having anything to eat all day.

And what about the church?  Well, the church is a mess too, mainly because there are people in it and people, as a rule, are a mess.   But what I told Sarah after the service was that I wished I could believe, because the values that are espoused by the church are the ones I hold.  Not by the mega-churches.  Not by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Not by the Vatican.  Good god no.  But by the humble, local, church, which teaches people (whether they do it or not) that they ought to love their neighbors as themselves, that they ought to do unto others as they would have them to themselves, that they should clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, visit the lonely, and so on.  That they should give of themselves for the sake of others, and not simply live for the fleeting pleasures of this life.

Of course, I myself think this live is all there is.  I don’t think there is a reward for good behavior or generosity.   I don’t believe in a supreme being who created the world and will redeem it and who has given us the chance to spend eternity in heaven.  I think when we die, that is the end of the story.   But the values espoused in the form of Christianity that I am most comfortable with – good, liberal, humble, caring Christianity – are really the values that I myself treasure and that, frankly, I do not see expressed very often in the secular society in which I spend my life.

Why aren’t their non-religious social institutions on every street corner (with or without steeples) that embrace these values?  Why do religious people give so much more of their possessions (they do!) and of themselves than secular people (I know, I know: for many it’s because they’re hoping to early favor with God; but others are, quite frankly, simply generous and self-giving).   Why do religious people so much more frequently commit themselves to the good of others than secular people do (again, I know, I know, there are real jerks among the believers – arguably the majority –  and most Christians, at the end of the day, are not better people than the rest of us, and there really are amazing people among the secularists – think Doctors Without Borders for starters).   But why are so many people so obsessed with the fleeting pleasures of the flesh and the superficial enjoyments that the media crams down our throats?  Why aren’t their humanist and secularist societies that band together in fellowship with commitments to love others and do good to those in need and to live for the greater things in live,  societies as highly visible as the church (at least as the church used to be)?  It is one of my perennial puzzles and concerns.

I think the question(s) came so deeply and disturbingly this Christmas Eve because when I was a Christian, acknowledging that the myth of the incarnation was a myth, I accepted the myth as saying something very profound.   In that myth, the ultimate reality (call it God) did not come into the world in a blaze of power worthy of a Roman emperor or with an astonishing abundance of wealth worthy of, well, a Roman emperor.  He came as an impoverished child to an unwed mother in the midst of a world of pain and suffering; and this child grew in poverty and urged his followers to give of themselves for the sake of others, insisting that it was the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hungry, the sick, the demon-possessed, the sinners, the outcasts who were the concern of that ultimate reality.  That made a lot of sense to me.  It still does.


Finishing the Work of a Translation
Problems with Inclusive Language Bible Translation

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Boltonian  December 24, 2016

    Hi Bart. Unlike you, I never was a believer but I used to get angry at those who were – why were they so gullible? why did wishful thinking trump reason? Why did they simply believe what somebody else told them without question? The paradox has always been that I love churches, cathedrals, some services, and, most of all, the music.

    Now, in more mellow late middle age (we are about the same age) I am, what has been called, a C of E agnostic. I don’t buy any of the beliefs or the historical justification thereof but our morals are Christian morals. Without the triumph of Christianity (to coin a phrase) there would be no reformation; no reformation, no Age of Reason; no Age of Reason, no Enlightenment (and no free scientific enquiry) ; no Enlightenment, no liberal, democratic, free trading, modern world.

    Also unlike you, I am not a pessimist. This modern world (in fact our progress since neolithic times) has given a higher proportion of the population better health, fewer violent deaths, less slavery, better protection against natural disasters, less poverty, more freedom, more leisure time etc. In fact, by almost any measure you care to name we are better off now than we have ever been, as the author Steven Pinker has amply shown in his book, ‘Better Angels of our Nature.’ Of course we have further to travel and showing compassion to those less fortunate than us will always be needed.

    Incidentally, I have never found religious people to be any more charitable than agnostics or atheists – perhaps the UK and the USA differ in this regard. Has any scientific research been carried out into this, do you know? And there is absolutely no evidence that I have ever seen (and there has certainly been much research in this area) to show that we are more selfish, greedy, uncaring, and less compassionate than we were.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      Well, the only reports I’ve read are possibly/probably biased, but they strongly indicate that religious folk (esp. Christians) tend to give away more of their disposable incomes to others than agnostics/atheists.

      • Avatar
        mjkhan  December 26, 2016

        Bart,There was a study in UK where they found that the least charity given is by Atheists and most by MUSLIMS.Yes Sir.Also in Islam the concept is that only those who have money above a certain level have to give but those who have below that level don’t have to.While in Christianity even the poor and needy are also asked to give as well..In Islam there is also a concept called”Sadqa-e-jaria” means on going charity.This applies to those kind of works which continue after the death of a man,e.g if you make a school ,leave behind a God fearing child or children who remains a good person and do with fear of accountability and thus do good, another good work for the benefit of people like orphanage,or old age home or a well in the path of a caravan etc Such hope stimulates a Muslim person to keep on doing good charity works in this life.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  December 27, 2016

          There’s also surveys that say children of atheist parents are kinder and more tolerant than Christians and Muslims. And surveys that claim atheists are more intelligent than believers. Also, I believe the survey you’re referring to was published in 2013. In 2015, a study came out that claimed Christians and Muslims are less generous than atheists. Go figure!

          • Avatar
            mjkhan  December 28, 2016

            I have read studies and research done in UK that the least givers were atheist and most were Muslims.Studies keep on coming.

  2. Avatar
    TheCaseGuy  December 24, 2016

    A good message worthy of reflection, but the words need a bit of proofreading touch-up, such as “there” instead of “their” more than once. Reconciling the “God’s Problem” element, during this religiously inspired (for many) time of year, begs some serious thought (and perhaps action), as we are a society overflowing with selfish hypocrisy in our materialistic indulgence.

  3. Avatar
    Fishhead  December 24, 2016

    I suggest you make it a tradition to repost this one every Christmas Eve. Unfortunately I expect the message will be just as pertinent in future years. An excellent, thought-provoking post.

  4. Avatar
    Judith  December 24, 2016

    Jesus said we are like sheep and need a shepherd. He is that shepherd for Christians.

    Dr. Ehrman, I wish this could be repeated every Christmas Eve. It’s the perfect time as most of us are ready for Christmas Day and can sit quietly with that first cup of coffee and appreciate every so true word in this beautiful post..

  5. Avatar
    rburos  December 24, 2016

    “Amen” seems somehow fitting. Thank you.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  December 24, 2016

    You’re walking down a path many have walked before, Bart. For centuries now. The loss of religious faith among those who clearly see the many valuable things religion brings to the table, has been a subject of discussion ever since the Enlightenment, if not before. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this problem in his often frighteningly prescient book, Democracy in America. You can see he’s long since given up any belief in the supernatural, but he still wants to believe in God–and in the values promulgated by Christianity.

    One of the things he admired about America was the rigid separation of Church and State, which he believed was absolutely essential to both maintaining Democracy and maintaining faith itself. He warned, thinking of his own country, where Democracy and Catholicism were at war (which he noted with great surprise was not at all the case here, Catholics and other religious minorities were often the most convinced supporters of democratic government), that when religion starts allying itself openly with certain governments, certain narrow political agendas, it risk being tarnished and corrupted–the people stop believing in it–see it as merely a servant of the temporal power. It was a good warning, and more should have heeded it here. We are going down the same road France did, generations earlier. I can’t blame the young for rejecting the evils of religious bigotry and intolerance (and all the attendant hypocrisy that goes with them). But they lose so much in the process. And society suffers as a result.

    I think he also saw a glimmering of the rise of fundamentalism–he talks about people who are offended by the way our growing knowledge of the world was threatening their hold on ‘the truth’, and were overreacting in the opposite direction. But he saw, as did you, that most religious people aren’t like this, that they’re just trying to live better lives, to be good for the sake of being good, because that is the only true way to ever be one with the divine spirit.

    I think we all crave something more than the material world. And never more than at this time of year.

    “There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,’ returned the nephew. ‘Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

    Maybe someday, we can all start over again, from scratch, and find a way to God together. Not rejecting the past, but building on the best of it. We should at least recognize it as a shared goal. And to appreciate all forms of spirituality that celebrate humanity–religion is often a source of division among men and women–faith never is. But faith, as you know, is harder, which is why dogma so often triumphs over it. I draw comfort from knowing that many have wrestled with these problems, long before we were born, and many will do so after we’re gone. Well, assuming Trump doesn’t blow us all up. Merry Christmas. 🙂

  7. Avatar
    tcasto  December 24, 2016

    It shouldn’t take the promise of heaven or the threat of hell to do the right thing in this life.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 26, 2016

      No, but who says that’s the only reason religious people do good?

      You do need to believe in something more than yourself, or in evolution–evolutionary science provides very little encouragement for the altruistic. Fact is, for most animals, altruistic behavior isn’t advantageous–most of what seems altruistic can be explained in terms of the survival of selfish genes (as a certain well-known atheist has phrased it).

      You’re going to need some kind of belief system–which does not necessarily need to be theistic in nature, but it’s going to have to be based on SOMETHING not subject to empirical proof–in order to promulgate ethical behavior for its own sake, which for a species like ours, is in fact the kind of behavior we need in order to survive, but individual survival and propagation often rewards short-term selfish behavior more.

      If your argument is “Well, you should want to do good for its own sake”, that is, in fact, a religious argument. No religion says “The only reason to be good is to go to heaven.” Jews (like Jesus) mainly did not believe in an afterlife, in the sense modern Christians do. But they still believed in being justified in the eyes of God and Man. And to be sure, all systems of ethical behavior have been imperfect in making men into angels.

      But when you’re saying “Do the right thing, even if it doesn’t work out to your advantage” you are, in fact, asking men to be angels. Though some stories you hear about angels….;)

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  December 29, 2016

        Godspell, I disagree that “You’re going to need some kind of belief system–which does not necessarily need to be theistic in nature, but it’s going to have to be based on SOMETHING not subject to empirical proof–in order to promulgate ethical behavior for its own sake.” Atheists, I think, often see that “we’re all related genetically” but also see how we are tied together historically and morally. Through the evolution of societies, successes and failures, most humans, I think, have come to realize that the best way for the most of us to live in peace and happiness is to be kind to one another. That’s a very practical development–no religion or spirituality required. It is true that we cannot go back back in time and observe and empirically verify how brutal life was person-to-person before moral codes were developed. I think we tend to see morality as an effect of religion, but I think it is not truly a cause-effect relationship or a mother (religion)-child (morality) one. I think morality was, to put it crudely, packaged in religion (or, to use your words, other non-empirically-verifable thought systems) in order to sell it better—granted, for the good of the people. Who was the psychologist (Maslow?) who broke down the stages of human development and related it to religious stages, saying that there is a stage in which we do the moral thing motivated by still being in the doing-something-to gain-the-approval-of-mommy-and-daddy stage (thinking God is watching you) and there is a more mature stage beyond that in which we do the moral thing because it is right.

        • Avatar
          godspell  December 31, 2016

          I respect your religious beliefs, even while I do not entirely share them. Happy New Year. 🙂

    • Avatar
      mjkhan  December 28, 2016

      It works in this world and works for religion.This is concept which encourages humans to do good and abstain from evil.When you read any divine book you will read this and esp in Quran.

    • Avatar
      mjkhan  December 28, 2016

      It works in even in this world you do good in class or elsewhere and you are acknowledged while do wrong and get criticism.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  December 24, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, it’s actually debatable that “religious” people give more to charity than non-religious. We have to remember that giving to a church is considered a “charitable donation,” regardless of whether that money goes to feed the hungry or to maintain the church’s landscaping.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/11/28/are-religious-people-really-more-generous-than-atheists-a-new-study-puts-that-myth-to-rest/
    “It turns out nearly 75% of charitable giving by all Americans… benefits places of worship and faith-based charities. A lot of the money isn’t helping the poor and less fortunate. It’s going to the church.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      Well, the only reports I’ve read are possibly/probably biased, but they strongly indicate that religious folk (esp. Christians) tend to give away more of their disposable incomes to others than agnostics/atheists. Don’t know if you’ve read the book Who Really Cares, but if so, I’d love to know your reaction to it!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 26, 2016

        Nope, haven’t read it. Can’t say this is an area I’ve been overly concerned with. The main problem is defining what, exactly, is charitable giving? I mean, is buying Girl Scout cookies a charitable donation or a business transaction, or a little of both? When a Medieval nobleman donated money to a local monastery, was he a good Christian man supporting the local clergy, or was he cynically trying to buy his way into Heaven? That fine line between selflessness and selfishness, between irrational altruism and “rational self-interest”, that’s the part that interests me.

        • Avatar
          godspell  December 28, 2016

          A truly religious person believes we’re all brothers and sisters under God. An atheist may believe we’re all related genetically, but that’s not the same thing.

          In fact, some of the most loathesomely amoral people I can think of have been atheists. One personally emailed me to gloat over Trump’s victory, while still proclaiming to the world that Jesus is pure myth, and black people are inferior.

          Yes, religion can lead to fanatical exclusivist behavior–but this behavior was not created by religion, it’s an aspect of human nature that religion and other systems of ethical thought very imperfectly hold in check.

          When you just abandon it outright, the result is not generally rational kind behavior.

          It’s Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. And Hitler fully intended to do away with all religion–check out the new biography, “Hitler: Ascent”–there’s a whole chapter on his relationship with the churches in Germany–all of which he hoped to destroy. What he said in public was not what he thought in private.

          Of course you can believe in no deity at all, and still be a kind, thoughtful, generous human being. But by the same token, you can be deeply religious and be a brilliant and deeply rational scientist.

          By their fruits shall ye know them.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  December 28, 2016

            Religion does not require a belief that “we’re all brothers and sisters under God.” Maybe you mean spirituality?
            Atheists, I think, often see that “we’re all related genetically” but also see how we are tied together historically and morally. Through the evolution of societies, successes and failures, most humans, I think, have come to realize that the best way for the most of us to live in peace and happiness is to be kind to one another. That’s a very practical observation–no religion or spirituality required. I hope that, while you see that “religion can lead to fanatical exclusivist behavior–but this behavior was not created by religion,” you can also see that the people you have known about who were some of the “most loathesomely amoral people I can think of” who were atheists were not necessarily loathsome and amoral because they were atheists. Personally, I think we tend to see morality as an effect that religion has had, but I think it is not truly a cause-effect relationship or a mother (religion)-child (morality) one. I think morality was, to put it crudely, packaged in religion in order to sell better–granted, for the good of the people. Who was the psychologist (Maslow?) who broke down the stages of human development and related it to religious stages, saying that there is a stage in which we do the moral thing motivated by still being in the doing-something-to gain-the-approval-of-mommy-and-daddy stage (thinking God is watching you) and there is a more mature stage beyond that in which we do the moral thing because it is right.

          • Avatar
            godspell  December 29, 2016

            All the great religions have started with a belief that all humans are connected.

            AS PRACTICED, they may not work out that way, but need I remind you how atheistic materialism worked out in Russia, China, Cambodia?

            Power tends to corrupt–all beliefs, not just religious ones.

            I don’t see any materialistic basis for morality. At all. You have to start with assumptions that can never be proven. “Good is better than evil.” “Kindness is better than cruelty.” “Love is better than hate.”

            Why?

          • talmoore
            talmoore  December 29, 2016

            Alas, being an Atheist doesn’t make one moral. However, being religious doesn’t necessarily make one moral either. Morality is more complex than people seem to think. One thing I’ve learned from my research into the origin and evolution of morality in humans, and animals in general, is that Steven Weinberg was basically correct when he observed that “with or without religion, good people will do good and evil people will do evil; but if you want good people to do evil, that takes religion.”

          • Avatar
            godspell  December 31, 2016

            Yeah, that’s nonsense. Good people who don’t believe in God have done enormous evil–all it takes is a secular belief system, which generally turn out even worse.

            The problem isn’t God. The problem is US.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  December 31, 2016

            Godspell: “I don’t see any materialistic basis for morality. At all. You have to start with assumptions that can never be proven. ‘Good is better than evil’. ‘Kindness is better than cruelty’. ‘Love is better than hate.’.” Are you saying the materialist must begin with such assumptions? Surely, religion also begins with assumptions which cannot be proven.

          • Avatar
            godspell  January 1, 2017

            Religion certainly does begin with things that can’t be proven. That’s what makes it religion. And don’t call me Shirley. 🙂

          • talmoore
            talmoore  January 3, 2017

            “Good people who don’t believe in God have done enormous evil”
            Name one.

  9. Avatar
    mjkhan  December 24, 2016

    Bart .Yours is a analytical site.May I use this to tell your readers that Jesus is a respected messenger in Quran.,He is dear to Muslims.No Muslim is a muslim if he doesn’t love and respect Jesus!.Jesus is mentioned in Quran many times more than Prophet Muhammad.Quran says not to discrimnate among the prophets of God,respect them all equally and sincerely.There is a whole chapter on Mary in Quran.Muslims don’t celebrate the birthday of Jesus(Many Christians also like Jehovas witness don’t either)Muslims don’t celebrate the birthday of Muhammad either because the teaching is to follow the teachings if you love the prophet rather than worship him yet ignore his teachings.
    I want to copy paste the link about Jesus in Quran.
    CH2: Jesus in the Quran
    http://www.islam101.com/history/people/prophets/jesus...

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 26, 2016

      I certainly think Muslims could, if they wished, celebrate Christmas without worshipping Jesus. Americans celebrate the birth of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln–on the same date, that neither of them was born on!–without turning them into gods. Though I was raised Catholic, I don’t consider Jesus to be a god, but I still revere him (and I don’t believe his mother was a virgin, and no, I will not take The Prophet Muhammad’s word for it, no offense meant, he wasn’t there. ;).

      The shared reverence for Jesus among Muslims and Christians should be a source for unity between the two faiths, and it’s a shame it so rarely has been. Without Christianity, Islam would not exist, and without Judaism, neither Christianity nor Islam would exist. We are the three great monotheistic faiths–why do we waste so much time fighting each other? It’s one of the great tragedies of history.

      • Avatar
        mjkhan  December 27, 2016

        Godspell,Thank you for your good post.There are two points worthy of response.
        Muslims do believe Mary was virgin ie.Jesus was born without any male intervention.Godd says in Quran that the example of Jesus is like Adam God said be and he was.Also plz be aware Quran is the word of God not of Muhammad,sayings and doings of Muhammad are compiled in a book called “Hadith”
        Also you are saying that Judaism causes the Islam to exisit.Islamic perspective is that God send all the prophets(about 124,000 in number,while only 25 written by name)to all the different peope in different times with same message,God is only one and do good deeds,if you do good you go to heaven,and if bad then in hell.So Judaism didn’t create CHrsitianity,nor it create Islam.I will strongly recommend you to read english translation of Quran.If you want my help let me know.

        • Avatar
          godspell  December 28, 2016

          I understand this is what you believe, but many others believe differently.

          I do not believe the Hadith can possibly all be true sayings of Muhammad, since they contradict each other, and because quite honestly, some of the sayings in some Hadith are so abhorrent, particularly with regards to women, that I do not wish to believe Muhammad could have originated them.

          I did not say Judaism created Christianity, or Christianity created Islam, but it is a historical fact that Muhammad studied both systems, and learned from them, and without them there would have been no Islam.

          There is a story–originating with Muslims who knew Muhammad–that he was one day watching some of his followers hand-pollinating date trees, which is to say, taking pollen from male trees and stuffing it into female trees, and he thought this was improper. He told them it would be better they not do this. They complied. The date crop was lousy. Muhammad could be wrong. Because he was a mortal man. Which all Muslims believe. He could have been wrong about other things as well.

          You have a right to your own beliefs. Not your own facts.

          Muslims have suffered so much in recent years, because Muslims who believe they have a right to say “Our version of Islam alone is true” are murdering all Muslims who will not agree with them in all things. This is the price you pay for claiming perfect knowledge–endless violence.

          You must accept that human beings can never perfectly understand the divine, and therefore all religions are inherently flawed. The alternative is madness.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 29, 2016

            mjkhan and others: I appreciate very much all your comments. I do want to suggest that we keep our comments on the blog to the one religion that is to be its focus, Christianity, and the religion from which it emerged, Judaism — not to other religions, even if they are near and dear to our hearts! I want to keep the blog focused, as much as possible.

  10. Avatar
    wostraub  December 24, 2016

    Thanks for re-posting this Christmas message, Bart. As a former believer myself, I completely agree. And even with the unearthly, God-awful election of Donald Trump, the teachings of Jesus still resonate in my heart, and make me strive to do more for the less fortunate.

  11. tompicard
    tompicard  December 24, 2016

    I was never entangled with the evangelical/fundamental christianity you at one time embraced, so I cant speak from experience and don’t want to generalize, but I think many involved in that type of christianity have unfortunate views.

    For instance that God the Father and/or Jesus is
    1) going to torture or obliterate a large proportion of His children, depending on some criteria that I am unsure of but do know that for most all denominations the critical criterion differ somewhat.
    2) cataclysmically and magically change the world, ending earthquakes and disease, starvation, etc
    3) mysteriously modify believers’ characters either at Christ’s return or when they go to heaven, so as they can live joyously together forever after, even though they may hate and resent other believers now.
    And
    4) All of the above is to be done 100% independent of any efforts or responsibility of persons on earth.

    Now, it is appropriate that such views be abandoned, yet rejecting those views does not at all imply a need to reject a belief in God. No, it is sufficient to merely reject those particular views.

    Personally, I don’t believe any of those 4 views are fundamental to Jesus’ teachings.
    Do you? Did you at one time? { i would speculate you still think so }

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      Are you asking me if I’m a fundamentalist? (Really??) Uh, no. Was I at one time? Yes indeed!

      • tompicard
        tompicard  December 26, 2016

        it was more of a question

        Do you still think the fundamentalist world view accurately portrays the historical Jesus’ ministry?

        I think you believe Jesus actually taught eternal damnation for most of us – which coincides with fundamentalist views.
        I think you believe Jesus taught magical somebody flying on a cloud – likewise coincides with fundamentalist views.
        I think you believe Jesus taught magical ending of earthquakes and physical death – these also coincide with fundamentalist views, as I understand them.
        Lastly, and most importantly, that jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was appearing completely independent of any human response to God’s call.

        If you believe Jesus really taught all that then, I hope you don’t take offense, you are still kind of a fundamentalist.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 27, 2016

          No, I don’t think so. If you describe the theology of Jerry Falwell that doesn’t make *you* a fundamentalist. In addition, the views of Jesus were vastly different from the views of modern fundamentalists.

          • tompicard
            tompicard  December 27, 2016

            ok i understand

  12. cheito
    cheito  December 24, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    Nobody dies to God.

    There’s a reason why God has done things the way he has done them.

    You should trust Him!

    The earth has been lovingly created by God for us.

    The earth did not create itself.

    The righteous person shall live by faith.

    I believe in God and in Jesus.

    I’m convinced that God raised Jesus from the dead.

    We are also responsible for our actions.

    Nobody dies to God!

    One official watches over the other and God watches over all authorities whether here on earth or in the the heavenly realms.

    God is the real king and the only one deserving to be called king.

    God chose Jesus to be Lord of all!

    As King He has the right to appoint rulers as He wishes.

    The kingdom of God will be here on Earth.

    Heaven is a temporary home for believers.

    Nobody dies to God!

    You will not die to God!

    We are here, that you can’t deny!

    Why are we here?

    At the end of it all you’ll find out!

    Is there an end to it all?

    Surely there is!!

    The Gospel of God and Jesus calls us to obey by faith!

    He who has lovingly created all things for us will be acquitted of all the charges against Him.

    Nobody dies to God!

    You DR Ehrman will not die to God.

    Blessings!

    • Avatar
      Rthompsonmdog  December 26, 2016

      Sorry, Cheito, but faith is a good way to be wrong. There is no belief that cannot be held based on faith.

      As far as we can tell, everything dies; nothing is eternal. If you have evidence to the contrary, let me know what that is.

      Thanks.

      • cheito
        cheito  December 27, 2016

        I believe the testimony of Paul, Peter, John, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, Micah.

        I also know my own experience and my own heart and spirit.

        I can’t prove to you that God raised Jesus from the dead or that God spoke to Moses and the other men I mentioned above, but my eyes are opened and I’m convinced that those men spoke the truth.

        At the end of it all you’ll know if God exists or not.

        I know by faith that God created The Earth we live on, the air we breathe and the food we eat and I’m thankful to Him. I also believe that God created me I didn’t create myself.

        If I believe that I exist why should I doubt that God does.

        • Avatar
          mjkhan  December 28, 2016

          Cheito,well written.But in the list of prophets you have omitted Muhammad,the last and final prophet.If you read Quran you will see all the above names and more and the divine message original and unchanged from the time it came.Knowledge never hurts.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 29, 2016

            mjkhan and others: I appreciate very much all your comments. I do want to suggest that we keep our comments on the blog to the one religion that is to be its focus, Christianity, and the religion from which it emerged, Judaism — not to other religions, even if they are near and dear to our hearts! I want to keep the blog focused, as much as possible.

  13. Avatar
    seahawk41  December 24, 2016

    Bart, this is a powerful and moving statement. I grwe up in a “conservative evangelical” denomination, but like you I moved farther and farther away from that as life went on. I’m still an active member (treasurer, sing in choir, etc.) of a liberal church, but my views are very similar to yours. Maybe the difference is that I didn’t go the gung-ho commitment in my teens that you did, even though I was close to it! I ended up with PhD in physics, and of course you can’t be a scientist (at least not a real one) and be committed to Biblical inerrancy and all that entails. I am one of those folks who *still* givres a large part of my income to good causes, many of which are directly involved in feeding the hungry etc. I think perhaps my upbring had a lot to do with that. The first check my mother wrote every week went to their pledge at their church. And it was at least 10%. Their belief was that they were not giving until they exceeded 10%.

  14. Avatar
    JR  December 24, 2016

    Wow. An extremely honest and profound post. Having been a zealous evangelical myself unti recently becoming agnostic I find this post expresses many of my unspoken feelings.

  15. Avatar
    Hume  December 24, 2016

    Good post! From the heart. I see your point, I know the EXACT longing.

    However, I think you should include everything when believers do good deeds. The proselytizing that comes with aid, even subtlety, cheapens the experience for me. Hope of reward and fear of punishment cheapens it as well from my perspective (I know you mentioned that).

    Hamas builds hospitals and distributes food, but also calls for the destruction of Israel. My point is I don’t worry too much about good deeds with the religious because their motivation is because someone or the bible told them to, not necessarily because it is, intrinsically, the right thing to do.

  16. Avatar
    Jason  December 25, 2016

    Four years out, do you feel a little more heartened with the success of the blog’s mission and organizations like UMD to answer your challenge here to secular actors?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      I feel greatly heartened by the blog’s success! Absolutely! But I still wish there were far, far more we could do.

  17. Avatar
    leo.b@cox.net  December 25, 2016

    For one who holds the christian ethics, but not the ‘story’, don’t you believe it possible that there is a supreme being (God) who did not and does not intervene for a reason?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      Yes, I certainly think it is possible. But I don’t think (at this point in my life) that it is at all likely.

  18. Avatar
    thebigskyguy  December 25, 2016

    I’m curious as to your thoughts about organizations like Sunday Assembly and the Oasis Network. I don’t think they were around when you first made this post, but both seem to have a goal of creating an environment of good works and community normally associated with churches, but without the superstitious baggage.

  19. Avatar
    VEndris  December 26, 2016

    Bart,

    Thank you so much for your thoughts. As with many of your Blog followers, they are very similar to my own. I often find myself not believing yet wishing that I did. However, I don’t have a problem believing something just because I want to – not because it makes sense.

    First question, when I was a conservative I used to hear all the time – “well, if there were no god, why be a good person?” Even back then I rejected the question as ridiculous, however, I now think there is a good question buried in it, i.e., is there an intrinsic reason to be a loving person if God is not the cause? What are your thoughts?

    Second question, in your introduction to the bible you mention how Judaism was distinct from other religions because its god cared how you acted. As you alluded to in your post, religion and ethics seem to be two different things. Why do you think they became so intertwined in Judaism/Christianity/Islam? Is there a historical reason?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      Yes, I’ve posted a number of times on why being good makes sense. It does make sense to me at least. Humans are built, in part, to love others, and those who are out to serve only themselves are, in my opinion, less than fully human and cannot ever be fully satisfied (ironically). On your second issue: it’s a fantastic question. I need to think about how that happened historically. I’m not sure!

      • Avatar
        doug  December 26, 2016

        Good reply Bart. From in-depth research or from just observing ourself and others, we can see we have the capacity for empathy and that we often get satisfaction from our empathetic actions. It’s part of who we evolved to be as humans and part of how we survived as a species. If we suppress our empathy (or if we lack it), we are missing out on a satisfying/fulfilling part of who we are.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  December 26, 2016

        I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time what was the driving force for the Israelites to become monotheistic? Polytheism could easily explain the way the world is, while monotheism really doesn’t. So why progress that way? It’s not about explaining the world. Maybe it was about hope? It doesn’t explain why innocent people suffer, but maybe it somehow gives hope that I will be able to avoid it? My most recent thinking is that it taps into the “just world hypothesis” that seems to be in us all, to varying extents. But probably it’s simply that one of the gods, Yahweh, got a reputation for being jealous, so they stopped worshipping the others, then that evolved into monotheism later. I still think it’s a fascinating question for today, what makes a belief in an all-loving, all-powerful God so powerful when it is at complete odds with the way the world is?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 27, 2016

          My sense is that it went from “Yahweh is a great god” to “Yahweh the great god is our special god” to “Yahweh is the greatest god and he is ours alone” to “Yahweh is the only true god and is ours alone”

          • Avatar
            dragonfly  December 27, 2016

            That’s a good way of putting it. The key seems to be “our special God”, which means there was an “us and them” mentality happening. There still is today in a different way. Christians are somehow different to everyone else in their eyes. Children of God etc. I’m still not sure why a belief in one all-loving, all-powerful God is so powerful with the amount of suffering in this world.And some people are suffering because of other people who believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God. I guess the devil is the scapegoat. We can blame everything on him to get God off the hook. I can really understand why apocalypticism was invented.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 28, 2016

        Humans, like wolves (an animal we’ve long felt a mixture of fear and kinship with, which is one reason we domesticated them, or arguably they domesticated us), are built to love those they perceive as their family–and to band together in opposition to those they perceive as outsiders. “Homo Homini Lupus.”

        That’s the problem. To expand the circle. To see everyone you meet as kindred. It’s a difficult thing to do, because the best way to forge a connection to someone is in shared opposition to someone else, and because we’re all so different from each other (and yet, I fully agree, still fundamentally the same), a poorly rooted sense of identity can see any difference as a threat.

        Jesus was one who proposed to solve this problem–even though he clearly saw himself as a Jew, and felt many of the same prejudices other Jews did against neighboring gentiles (and most of all the closely related Samaritans), he still seems to have kept straying outside his group, unable to believe that his God was only God to the Jews. The circle kept expanding after his death, but tragically, the Jews who quite understandably failed to accept him as Messiah ultimately became the group Christians most consistently identified together in opposing and persecuting. Something Jesus and his early followers never intended, and would have been aghast by.

        It’s a very knotty problem. Human nature, I mean. So much kindness and good will, mingled with so much anger and hostility, and when resources are scarce, or our ideas conflict, or we just feel in need of a good fight…..

        But so many Christians, not necessarily understanding the conflicts in our nature, but responding to the gospel, told to see every stranger in the road as Christ in disguise, have risked everything to help others, people who are not part of some kinship circle.

        Even now, Christians are taking in Muslim refugees here. After all the hysteria in the media. After all the hate stirred up by many who call themselves Christian leaders. To say they’re only doing it to go to heaven is horribly unfair. They’re doing it to consider themselves WORTHY of someday seeing God. That’s not the same thing.

        The message lives on, and all who call themselves human should revere that, as I know you do.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  December 28, 2016

          “only doing it to go to heaven” and “doing it to consider themselves WORTHY of someday seeing God” seem awfully close to me. And, besides, in my view at least, I’d much prefer people helped others because it is the right thing to do, not because it might make them “worthy” in God’s eyes.

          • Avatar
            godspell  December 29, 2016

            There’s a difference between wanting to have something and wanting to be a better person who might actually deserve it.

            And again, not all religions–including Judaism–have always believed in an afterlife. You seem to keep blocking this out. The goal of Buddhism is not eternal life, but to be released from the cycle of rebirth. You don’t seem to know very much about religion, so how effectively can you critique beliefs you’ve never seriously studied?

            You say you’d prefer to help others because it’s the right thing to do–but what makes you sure it’s right? Things you can’t prove, things you feel inside. It’s really the same thing. You have your own god, and you just don’t want to call it that. But answer me this–if helping others came with a heavy price–persecution, imprisonment, death–would you still do it? Many religious people have.

            There are many levels of believing, and you seem to be focused only on the most banal, because you want to believe all religion is bad, and none of it is necessary.

            But the fact remains, many people who are opposed to religion seem to delight in doing evil. So do many people who claim to be religious, I hasten to add. There are good and bad people on both sides of that divide. But I have to say, some of the very worst I’ve encountered have been atheists. And I don’t mean you–not at all. But they are out there. You’ve probably met some yourself.

            So maybe religion–theistic or secular–simply intensifies whatever is inside of you. But if those who have more negative personalities are going have these intensifiers, isn’t it a good idea to make sure those with more positive attributes have them as well?

          • Avatar
            godspell  December 29, 2016

            That was a lot of typing, and I wouldn’t blame you for scanning through it quickly.

            Maybe read this instead–and ask yourself “Would I have been one of them?”

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Rose

            Some were conventionally (I’d say more than just conventionally) religious, some not.

            But they all believed in something.

            Thing is, we all like to be comfortable, and to keep breathing, and to avoid the harsher penalties that can come from doing the right thing. And then comes the test, and it finds most of us unprepared, because to pass that test goes against our survival instincts.

            Are you doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, or because it makes you feel good about yourself, and doesn’t cost you much?

            And one last thing, and I’ll let this drop, and read your responses (if any) with respect, and just a touch of skepticism.

            If it wasn’t for the ages of religious thinkers that came before you, would you have the same ingrained ideas about what ‘the right thing’ is?

            The most religious statement I can think of in all of literature is when Huck Finn, who has had a twisted sense of values inflicted on him by his society, says “All right, I’ll go to hell!” rather than betray his friend Jim.

            If that voice inside of us isn’t God, what would you call it?

          • Avatar
            dragonfly  December 29, 2016

            Ah, but what makes something the “right” thing to do? Helping others may be the compassionate thing to do, but why does that make it “right”?

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  December 31, 2016

            Godspell, I take your distinction between ” There’s a difference between wanting to have something and wanting to be a better person who might actually deserve it.” After you wrote that, you say things that make me wonder if it really was me you were responding to. I didn’t say anything that suggested that I was blocking out the fact that other religions don’t believe in an afterlife. You think, for some reason, that I know little about religion. I studied eastern religions while getting my MA in philosophy.
            You write, “You say you’d prefer to help others because it’s the right thing to do–but what makes you sure it’s right?” I don’t always know for sure that it’s the right thing to do, especially when I was raising my two children. We all do the best we can. Standing for what you believe is true often loses the “belief” aspect of it. True, people talk and act as if their belief that something is right is absolute and are even willing to die for it sometimes. That speaks to the strength of their conviction, not to the absolute truth of what they believe. You’re completely out of line declaring that I have my own god but just don’t want to call it that. I have no beliefs in gods or God. Not everything that is foundational to one’s ethics is something divine. Unless you want to, as many have, mess around with the meaning of “god” or “God” like so many have with the word “hero.” It seems for many, these days, that all soldiers are heroes; it used to be that only certain exceptional acts of courage made a man or woman a hero.
            Then you ask me to answer whether, if helping others “came with a heavy price–persecution, imprisonment, death–would [I] still do it?” Then you point out, “Many religious people have.” Do any of us know, ahead of time, whether we would act as you say? I think it is pretty clear from history that both atheists and theists have died for their beliefs even when parts of their beliefs might have been wrong or at least considered wrong by others.
            Really, I’m having trouble believing that your post is addressed to me, even though it is inset under mine. I mean, when you say you think I am “focused only on the most banal, because [I] want to believe all religion is bad, and none of it is necessary,” could you really be responding to me? You don’t know me.
            I’ll stop here because this kind of exchange is not what Bart’s site is for and because too much of what you posted seems not to be to me.

          • Avatar
            godspell  January 1, 2017

            I can’t think offhand of any atheists who have died for their beliefs. I’m not saying there weren’t any, but the list of martyrs is pretty slim. Some people have certainly been persecuted or suffered social sanctions of some kind for disbelieving certain religious tenets–not the same thing as being an atheist. I keep having atheists tell me that atheism isn’t a belief system, so how can you be persecuted for your beliefs if you don’t have any?

            But in any event, I wasn’t talking about people being persecuted for their beliefs. I was talking about people being persecuted for helping other people and speaking out against tyranny, murder, and injustice, BECAUSE of their beliefs. In other words, people sticking their necks out for people they in many cases did not even know.

            I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Louis Malle film, Au Revoir Les Enfants. That was based on something Malle witnessed himself. The headmaster of the Catholic school Malle was attending (Malle himself was not Catholic, it was just considered a good school), a discalced Carmelite friar, hid several Jewish children among his students. He was found out, and arrested, and taken to a series of concentration camps, which destroyed his health. He died several weeks after being liberated.

            He wrote these words, well before his arrest–“We are Carmelites for one reason. To love. To love, of course. But also to give proof of that love.”

            Could you look him in the face and say “You only did that because of some crackbrain theory you were going to heaven”?

            He was a highly educated man–probably more so than most here on this forum. He must have had doubts about an afterlife. He had no doubt of his beliefs. His beliefs said that you must see every living being as your brother or sister–as Jesus in the flesh–and you must do unto them as you would have others do unto you.

            That’s a hard thing for a pure materialist to manage. Not that I think you have to be a pure materialist to not believe in God. But what do we even mean by God? Have any two people ever meant the same exact thing by that word? I wonder.

            To do the right thing because it’s the right thing–leaving aside the fact that people have diametrically opposed ideas of what the right thing is–strikes me as a rather sterile doctrine.

            I’d rather do the right thing to give proof of my love. But who would I be proving it to? Ay, there’s the rub.

    • Avatar
      mreichert  December 27, 2016

      Interesting questions that I will take a shot at answering. First, why be a good person? I look to our animal relatives for clues to why this is. Species far distant from us, fish, most reptiles, fend for themselves only, do not even look after their young, just lay eggs and leave. But birds and even crocodiles look after their young, sometimes to a great degree that even risks the life of the parent. Why do they do this? Obviously there is an evolutionary advantage, caring for young helps he young survive to pass on parents genes, but what instinct drives the parent? I know there is a lot of brain chemistry info out there that can explain this better than I can, for now I will just say it “feels good” for the parent to care for its young.
      Mammals take care if their young through nursing, which would seem like a bad idea since it directly robs the mother of nutrients. But mammal moms do this because it “feels good”. For many mammals this is the end of the “being good” story, carrying for others besides their young is not part of their makeup. But social mammals take it to the next level. Taking care of fellow members of a mammalian pack, troop, tribe, whatever, benefits the individual because then the other members will likely take care of him when needed. The “feel good” as associated with nursing gets extended to “being good” to fellow group members. All makes evolutionary sense, and extends right up to humans.
      So why are humans not always good to each other, not always “good persons”? Well, one aspect of evolutionary survival is looking out for yourself. This extends to all life forms, even plants. An individual or a species is not going to survive for long if it does not fight for the resources and nutrients it needs to survive. If this fight for resources harms other life, so be it, the fight for resources is necessary for survival.
      How does this play out in humans? Even good people will look to get higher salaries, pay the minimum amount of taxes, and save money for future use rather than share with others. The “looking out for yourself” attitude with never go away, and it should not. But humans can be very generous as well, especially to their children, family group, or other close associates. And this is done instinctively, through how a particular action feels rather than some long-term plan about passing on your genes.
      Humans (and other social mammals) cross the spectrum from psychopathically greedy to generous to a fault. Most of us lie somewhere in between. So many of us are “good persons” just because it feels right. Others are good, even if their inclination is to be not so good, because there is a social stigma to being not good. People are not going to be good to a person who is not good to them. Of course real life is much more complicated than that with people getting away with doing bad things and all, but generally social stigma helps keep people from being too bad.
      The next step for humans in-so-far as keeping people “good” are civil laws, prohibitions against and punishments for murder, robbery, etc., etc that are built into our laws. This goes to the second question about why ethics is intertwined with Judaism. To me it is obvious that Mosaic law was really intended to keep civil order and unify a people. Moses had an obvious need to keep his people together, what better way than to have pronouncements from on high about how “the chosen people” should behave? Kind of funny though how commandments like “thou shall not kill” seem to apply to only the tribal group. There seemed to be no problem with killing all members of opposing tribes who stood in their way to the promised land. Ethics seem to apply first and foremost to the tribe, only tangentially to people as a whole. Makes sense from the evolutionary biology viewpoint.
      The subject of good and evil as it intertwines with religion and human behavior is a good one. I appreciate that I have a spot now to write down my thoughts on these and other issues.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 28, 2016

        Thanks for the response, but it seems to contain a lot of suppositions that aren’t based on real knowledge. How do you know Moses even existed? We can be pretty sure about Jesus, but Moses is a much more mythical figure, probably based on one or several real people, but we certainly don’t know much about the origins of the Ten Commandments, or the original intent of Mosaic law.

        We know the origins of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Take a look at American history. How’d that work out for black people, women, or the folks who were living here when the first Europeans arrived? I don’t think we can judge the people of that time too harshly for not always living up to their own ideals. No one ever does, best as I can tell.

        The problem with applying evolution to humans is that we do many things that make no sense from an evolutionary viewpoint–because we have science, technology, culture, and beliefs in things we can’t prove but still obviously need to believe, we have partly removed ourselves from that sphere. This means we are capable of both good and evil. These words mean nothing to other animals. They have emotions, both nurturing and violent in nature, but they do not have ethics. Ethics requires believing in things you can’t perceive with the senses, things that can’t feed or shelter you, things that may at times make life a great deal more complicated. Though they also make civilization possible.

        You say “People won’t be good to someone who isn’t good to them.” That is generally true, but not invariably. Some people have gone to great pains to return good for evil. Most of these people have been under the sway of some religious ideal they are trying to live up to. Religions like Christianity are anti-Darwinian. They say that physical survival and propagation is not, in fact, the goal of life. Not only Christianity preaches this. It is possible to believe this without any belief in a higher power. But it’s very very rare. And I think most non-believers who do this are in fact influenced by religious ideas, even if they don’t believe in any deity. These ideas have entered human culture, infected us all. Even those who don’t live by them.

        Gandhi didn’t believe Jesus was God. He still gained great insight from studying the gospels. That’s just one example. Conversely, Christians have gained insight from studying the ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism. These ideas are a precious legacy from our ancestors. They contain truths we need in order to achieve our potential.

        The great contradiction is that as long as we remain a technological species, for us simply live as animals, thinking mainly of our individual or racial survival, will lead to destruction for all. We need more than that. Or we need to go back to being hunter-gatherers. Those are our choices.

        • Avatar
          mreichert  December 29, 2016

          Hey godspell, I am glad someone read my long post. So, Moses may have not existed and we don’t know much about the origins of Mosiac law, I’ll go along with that. My response in that regard was conjecture based on a few assumptions. But I question the presumption of the question I was trying to answer, that Judaism is unique with regard to a god that cares about ethics. Do we know that? Or even have a reason to assume it? I am sure that among the thousands of tribal groups that have existed over time, most had some sort of code of ethical conduct. How else would a tribe stay together without some rules for getting along with each other? And I am willing to bet that at least some of these had some sort of divine belief system to reinforce the code of conduct.

          With regard to rules of conduct, assuredly none of these has been either perfectly written or perfectly applied. Even the “love your neighbor as yourself” statement leaves way too much room for interpretation. Does this mean it is okay or not okay to cheat on your taxes?

          Moral ambiguity has bothered me for some time, especially as professed by supposedly “moral” Christians. Is it really okay to deny a couple a marriage licence because they are homosexual? Inflict harm on these people who are not harming anyone? To me the marriage licence denier is doing the obvious immoral act. For all our ethical teachings and moral beliefs, when it comes to good and evil we really are not that much beyond animals

          I stand by my applying evolution to humans. I don’t think science, culture, and all aspects of modern living come close to overriding evolution-derived impulses. Why do we like good food, positive social interactions, and are attracted to certain physical features in a sexual way? Why do we think babies and puppies are cute and need our protection and love while other things like spiders and snakes and poop are scary or abhorrent? We cannot rationalize our way to how we feel, believe me I tried, we just feel it.

          Of course we can modify our feelings and behavior to a certain extent. A person may control his impulse to rob a store based on fear of getting caught, however another person may not. A person may be inclined to give to a charity because he feels it is what God wants him to do, or not. Selfishness may still win out. Religious belief may incline people to accept Syrian refugees but that is certainly not the dominant mood of our mostly Christian nation right now. The impulse for self-protection is too strong among most people.

          I would not say that physical survival and propagation are the goal of life, at least not the way we look at our lives as individuals. I am not particularly bothered by the fact that I have no children to pass my genes to, but don’t really have a “goal of life”. Christian teachings certainly do not help me in that regard. Is a Christian’s goal of life to die and go to heaven? That does not make any sense to me, but religious beliefs seem to give comfort to lots of people. More power to them.

          But survival and propagation surely influenced our emotional make-up regardless of what we think the goal of life is. Even the inclination toward belief in a higher power has an evolutionary component for humans. Imagine a tribe going through hard times because of lack of food, some members believing that the gods will provide while others do not believe and fall into despair. Hope in this case would be a positive survival mechanism for those believing individuals; despair in the others could result in the others not surviving.

          Survival and propagation will likely influence the emotional characteristics of future humanity. Suppose some great catastrophe affects the entire planet, wiping out all humans except those paranoid hoarders that stockpiles years worth of food. The human race for awhile would be dominated by those inclined toward paranoid hoarding.

          I don’t quite get your last point about us being a technological species or going back to being hunter-gatherers. Of course hunter-gatherers could be kind and gentle, or mean and ruthless especially when attacking another tribe, not so different than us. Technology just gives us more shared knowledge and a better appreciation of the consequences of our action. We may still wipe ourselves out, or not, I don’t have a crystal ball that looks that far into the future.

          • Avatar
            godspell  December 31, 2016

            I don’t think I ever said Judaism was unique in that regard.

            But it was fairly unique at the time in codifying and writing down what it considered righteous behavior.

            Which is one reason this blog exists.

            Hunter-gatherers can be cruel, but they don’t have WMD’s, or smokestack industry, or the automobile. We can wipe each other out without even trying, by changing the climate.

  20. Avatar
    Jana  December 26, 2016

    This paragraph brought tears to my eyes Dr. Ehrman .. “He came as an impoverished child to an unwed mother in the midst of a world of pain and suffering; and this child grew in poverty and urged his followers to give of themselves for the sake of others, insisting that it was the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the hungry, the sick, the demon-possessed, the sinners, the outcasts who were the concern of that ultimate reality. That made a lot of sense to me. It still does.” As you know I live among the very poor yet theirs’ is spiritual wealth even embodying a Divine Spark not dependent upon a religion or a church. Having so very little to nothing, the Maya have taught me a lot about charity .. far more than i could possibly give. Your questions about suffering have provoked much reflection. I’ve wondered if we expect too much from Divinity or the Gods? Perhaps they too are limited? I don’t know. I’m searching for answers too from your penetrating questions… I don’t know why selfishness and materialism and frivolous pursuits rule when obviously they don’t bring permanent happiness. … on the contrary a seemingly insatiable demand for more stuff. These too are deep questions. I am thankful for the benefit of your sincerity, brilliance and prodding mind forcing me to reflect AND DO BETTER, be stronger, give more. Wishing you and your loved ones a healthy New Year filled with delightful gifts of wonder.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      You are doing the work of God! I hope you have a wonderful holiday season.

    • Avatar
      Jana  December 26, 2016

      I’m wondering and have you written about where do we get our preconceptions about God? Is the God that we believe will intervene and help with human misery then become disenchanted (the opposite of the paradigm), the God of the Bible? If we are no longer believe in the type of God described in the Bible, then what are the qualities of a Divinity? If there is a Divinity(ies)? Do you speak to this in any of your books that I’ve yet to read?

      • Bart
        Bart  December 27, 2016

        I think the idea does come from the Bible — since both the exodus event and the crucifixion/resurrection event both show that God is concerned to intervene for the salvation of his people. But many people today, of course, have far different conceptions of the divinity. The closest I’ve come to talking about such things is in my book God’s Problem.

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